The ongoing agitation against three farm laws has brought attention to the growing anxieties in Punjab-Haryana-Western Uttar Pradesh agrarian belt. Beyond the discontent, the mobilisation has also shown the rural power dynamics in these regions. Specifically in western Uttar Pradesh, the movement has been led by the Bharatiya Kisan Union.
Before the current agitation, the fortunes of the Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU) were in decline after its mobilisation peak in the 1980s, culminating in the 1988 Boat Club rally in Delhi. A critical look at the farmers’ agitation in the late 1980s shows that the current farmers’ movement has lessons to learn from the past about the larger rural and community interests in protests. The BKU’s failure of imagination in putting a ‘kisan’ and ‘mazdoor’ united front in the 1980s rendered the concerns of rural India invisible in the popular imagination for more than three decades. And it also set the stage for competitive religious and caste-based ‘mandir’ and ‘Mandal’ politics of the 1990s. Cut to present, the farmers’ movement today once again misses the farm labourer question, just like it did many years ago. One of the needs, also acknowledged by Samyukta Kisan Morcha of the coordinating body of the farmers’ movement, is to broaden the reach of their agitation. Similarly, it would be crucial for the resilience of the movement to give more space to mazdoor voices and their concerns.
Therefore, this story of antagonism between the kisan and the mazdoor in western Uttar Pradesh is relevant today. Looking at the rural power dynamics and limits of agrarian mobilisation in the late 1980s is important because it reveals the rural faultlines in the region that run deep behind the public insistence on ‘bhaichara’, the brotherly ties between the communities. The story of Bharatiya Mazdoor Union is one such account, which also showed the way for the emergence of the Bahujan Samaj Party as a major player in rural Western Uttar Pradesh.
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BKU’s formation and aims
The BKU’s formation as a body representing farming interests in Western Uttar Pradesh had a background in land reforms and the green revolution. Post-Independence land reforms had varied outcomes in eastern and western regions of UP. Political scientist Jens Lerche describes this divergence in clear terms: Eastern UP witnessed a fragmentation of power dynamics, in which ‘backward’ castes and Dalits gained in local agrarian relations at the expense of Thakur landlords. In Western UP, it led to the consolidation of rural power and land ownership in favour of Jats. Their dominance was further cemented politically by Chaudhary Charan Singh’s anti-Congress Coalition of agrarian Backward Castes.
The BKU was formed by Charan Singh in 1978 after his exit from the Janata Party government. It was revived after his death and was headed by Mahendra Singh Tikait from 1987 onwards. The mobilisations by the BKU centred on common demands of the agricultural economy about better prices and state support in inputs, among others. Therefore, it voiced the concerns of large farmers while depending on a general kisan identity. At an organisational level, the BKU harnessed the caste, clan, and kinship affiliations, as Zoya Hasan noted after its 1988 siege in Delhi. Furthermore, its dominance in Western UP relied on the overlaps between caste affinity and farmer identity, which showed the limits of agrarian mobilisation and patterns of exclusion and coercion.
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Emergence of Mazdoor Union as a response
The formation of Bharatiya Mazdoor Union (BMU) was a response to the BKU dominance in Western Uttar Pradesh. Formed in 1987, it was a counter-mobilisation by the rural poor, especially agricultural labourers, and had the tacit support of non-Jat rural rich castes like Gurjars, Sainis, and Tyagis. The local leaders in then Congress government battling the BKU agitation also patronised the BMU in its early days. One of its founders, Jaipal Singh Mithariya, had past associations with Congress and Ambedkarite organisations such as The All India Backward (SC, ST, and OBC) and Minority Communities Employees Federation and Dalit Shoshit Samaj Sangharsh Samiti and was already working with landless labourers.
In an interview with one of us, Mithariya recalled his youth in the 1980s and how he came to organise the labourers’ opposition to the BKU dominance. He looked at the BMU’s rural mobilisation as a broad-based movement of labourers and not as a caste-based agitation. Mithariya belongs to a landholding family in Karheda village in Muzaffarnagar, where he still resides and runs a small kirana shop he opened after the Covid-19-induced lockdown. The village used to serve as a centre of BMU activities back in the day.
His views aside, the rural churning in the late 1980s was mostly seen through the prism of caste. The BKU was perceived as a Jat organisation underpinned by traditional kinship ties, whereas the BMU support was driven largely by landless Dalit agricultural labourers. They faced different kinds of harassment and social sanctions in rural Western UP, mostly due to relationships of dependence vis-à-vis Jat landholders. When their grievances were presented before Mahendra Singh Tikait for mediation in a meeting, he allegedly made a remark, recounted by Mithariya to author Jagpal Singh in his book Capitalism and Dependence, ascribing labourers’ grievances to their jealousy of rural rich. This apathy hardened the resolve of landless labourers to throw their weight behind the BMU. This past rivalry between farmers and agricultural labourers still persists, at least in the Karhera village, has taken a new shape now. It is between those by the side of Jaipal Mithariya and those against him. This was visible when we entered the village and asked about the way to Jaipal Mithariya’s house. Many people saw us suspiciously.
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In contrast to most economic concerns of rural rich, as Professor Jagpal Singh aptly points out, the issues for mobilisation of rural poor had more to do with their social discrimination and “relationships of one-sided dependence”. The competing mobilisations of BKU and BMU resulted in many clashes from 1987 to 1989, which caught public attention.
At Bhopa, a town near Mithariya’s village, in 1989 there was one such incident where a Dalit labourer’s refusal to work for a Jat BKU supporter resulted in a firing by the Jats, in which four died and 25 were injured. This led to a series of spiralling violence between the BKU and the BMU in different districts of Western Uttar Pradesh. In its wake, Mithariya-led BMU held an agitation at Prime Minister’s residence in New Delhi. As a result, ex-gratia compensation for Dalit victims of the clashes was provided for the first time, Mithariya claimed. In view of the BMU mobilisation, Tikait-led BKU reluctantly opened up to the demands of agricultural labourers, the historic Boat Club dharna led by Bhartiya Kisan Union had the minimum wage demand of agricultural labourers at the top, but BMU then described it as ‘tokenism’ because it was the farmers who had a violent relationship with the mazdoor and had to pay them.
The BMU’s social outreach was further hampered as it broke into different groups within a year of its formation. One was led by Congress’s MP from Haridwar-Saharanpur constituency, but a large fraction of the BMU workers stayed with Jaipal Mithariya. The Congress leaders’ patronage dried up after 1989, as the social base of the party’s coalition crumbled and it lost the elections in Uttar Pradesh, with BJP and BSP increasingly eating into its vote share. The BMU gradually faded into the background while the BKU tried to find a role in the charged political environment of the 1990s. Tikait’s foray into electoral politics before the 1996 assembly election as part of Bharatiya Kisan Kamgar Party (BKKP) can be seen as an attempt to broaden the base of BKU by appealing to the labourers.
In his 70s now, Jaipal Mithariya is also critical of BSP’s policy towards land titles, patta, for Dalits. He said that the BSP government, led by Mayawati, had never tried to free the land from the rich peasantry in western Uttar Pradesh, and has rather given smaller pieces of land to Dalits and settled them. While talking about today’s farmers’ movement, he termed it a ‘battle of humanity’ and angrily asked the government to repeal the laws, even though BKU never invited him for any of the Mahapanchayats they organised in the name of ‘kisan-mazdoor ekta’.
Shivam Mogha is co-editor with Trolley Times. Sunil Choudhary is a research scholar at JNU, New Delhi. Views are personal.